Travel review: Nashville

The General Jackson Showboat
The General Jackson Showboat
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Nashville is the spiritual birthplace of country music, but as Jez Smadja discovers it is also a hotbed of superstar chefs, rock bands and actors going in search of Southern comforts

There’s a reason why it’s called the Music City. I’ve just cleared customs at Nashville International and I’ve already spotted Keith Urban (the country music superstar, American Idol judge and Nicole Kidman’s husband) wheeling a baggage trolley through the terminal.

What else would you expect in Nashville, this genteel and unhurried yet proudly cosmopolitan city, reared right in the middle of the Bible Belt? It’s a place where Southern hospitality is doled out in super-sized portions.

Counting a population of 609,000, Nashville surely has more music professionals per capita than anywhere else in the world: singers, songwriters, guitar pickers, record execs, studio engineers, and every one has a celebrity tale to tell.

This is, after all, the town that launched the careers of Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, a town where Elvis recorded Are You Lonesome Tonight? and where Bob Dylan made Blonde on Blonde.

If you’ve come here for country music, bluegrass or folk, you won’t have to look too far. Seven days a week, the flashing neon lights of Lower Broadway alert you to the honky-tonks where down-on-their-luck pickers once came to make their dreams come true.

On a Monday night, there’s only one place to be, and that’s 3rd & Lindsley. It’s a Nashville institution thanks to the Time Jumpers, a loose association of seasoned studio musicians. The band’s line-up changes, but tonight, wearing a forest green polo shirt, is country music legend Vince Gill. The audience is made up of professional musicians in ten-gallon hats and country music afficionados all sipping on beers and Tennessee bourbons. The crowd laps up Gill’s swing and blues standards, and he plays a barnstorming version of Trouble In Mind.

Nashville is uniquely set up to market its rich country music heritage to tourists. There’s a new Johnny Cash Museum off Broadway, the astonishing Hatch Show Print, where they’re still making posters on hand-cranked letterpress machines and the restored Ryman Auditorium, former church and home of the legendary Grand Ole Opry radio show, before it moved to the more spacious Grand Ole Opry House.

Yet at the same time, Nashville seems to be on the cusp of something genuinely fresh and exciting. It’s why artists like the Kings of Leon, the Black Keys and Jack White from the White Stripes, as well as top chefs, fashion designers and film-makers, are making Nashville their home. The Music City has undergone a creative renaissance; GQ magazine has dubbed it Nowville and in the New York Times it’s been called “It” City, stealing the limelight from other up-and-coming US destinations like Austin and Portland. A few blocks south of Broadway is Third Man Records, the record label set up by singer/record producer Jack White, whose move to Nashville sparked the city’s artistic rebirth. The brick warehouse lies in a former industrial district called Sobro, where the Union Pacific freight train rattles on towards Chattanooga.

The operation opened its doors in March 2009 and combines a record shop decorated in kitsch fashion with a recording studio and a 250-seat venue called the Blue Room. Here, fans have been treated to performances by The Shins, The Kills and Jerry Lee Lewis. Just down the street is Peg-Leg Porker, a BBQ restaurant flying its true Southern colours.

It’s a relatively recent addition to the neighbourhood but already a solid favourite, thanks to its paprika-rubbed dry BBQ ribs, tender pulled pork and smoky pulled chicken.

Peg-Leg Porker also produces its own Tennessee Bourbon. Outside, on the sun-strafed terrace, the restaurant owner is talking to a couple deliberating over which car to get Carrie Underwood for her next video. The food scene in Nashville is also hotter than a poker right now. While you can eat yourself a belt-buckle larger with Southern staples like fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and cherry pie, there’s also a lot of forward-thinking, homespun cuisine made from locally sourced ingredients.

You can witness this first-hand across the Cumberland River in the enclave of East Nashville, around neighbourhoods like Five Points, Historic Edgefield and East End. Unlike the big skyscrapers in Downtown, East Nashville has long avenues of brightly-painted bungalows, with clipped lawns and rocking-chair porches, interspersed with Baptist churches, a sign of the historic African-American community.

Five Points, so called because it sits at the junction of five roads, lines up restaurants like Marche, a market and bistro banking on its farmyard-to-the-table formula, and The Pharmacy, where the burgers are made from Tennessee beef and have been drawing serious critical attention. Fans of Mexican food head for Mas Taco Por Favor, once a food truck, now a bona fide bricks-and-mortar success story.

There is huge mural that I’ve seen in strategic locations all over Nashville. It has red and white vertical stripes, three stars on a blue circle, and in large capital letters the words: I Believe In Nashville. Though I’ve only been here 48 hours, I can safely say I’m a believer too.

• Jez Smadja was a guest of Brand USA. For more information, you should visit www.DiscoverAmerica.com

Visit www.visitmusiccity.com and www.tnvacation.com